Discerning Authentic Spiritual Experience
In Exodus 3, Moses was having an average day: tending the flock, hanging out in the desert. But then, the text notes, “he led the flock to the far side of the desert.” And there he has the profound and epic experience of meeting God in a bush. We spent some time on this passage in a recent gathering of Roots DC, the faith community I’m a part of here in DC. In the text, Moses is told to take off his sandals, for “the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
This led to some discussion: what made that ground special? What was the significance of taking off his shoes? At what point in this experience did Moses realize that it was more than just an oddity of nature, that God was meeting him there?
This led to further ponderings on divine encounters or spiritual experiences in general: what are they like? How do you know when (or if) you are having one? When to believe someone else’s account of such an experience?
I recently came across some helpful guidelines by Gerald May, whose work I’ve come across since I’ve begun working at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, a center for developing contemplative spiritual practice and leadership. May practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at Shalem.
May notes that when someone speaks of having an encounter with the Divine, we wonder: Is this “real” or is it an illusion contrived by ego?
In having this discussion, he reminds us that the line between reality and illusion can be very close: “Because our minds continually create images of reality through our senses and conditioning, it would be true to say that all experience is at least somewhat psychologically contrived.”
In other words, all of our experiences in life have a psychological component, whether it be chatting around the coffeepot at work, checking the mail, or a profound spiritual encounter.
He outlines eight qualities that can be useful in judging whether a spiritual experience is authentic, while noting “our experiences cannot be based on content alone”, but “must be integrated in the larger picture of life: in context, in community, and over time.”
I found these eight points very helpful, so here they are:
- Meaningful Integration. Authentic spiritual experiences do not exist as isolated “highs.” They occur within the context of real life and are integrated in a way that is meaningful for both individual and community. Authentic experiences may contain a perfect end-in-itself quality, but they still have meaning and impact on life.
- Bearing Good Fruit. Authentic spiritual experiences lead to good effects for individual and community. Classically, this includes deepened faith, hope, trust, compassion, creativity, and love. Authentic experiences do not lead to privatism or destructiveness.
- Decreased Self-Preoccupation. Authentic experiences lead people to feel more identified with and open to the rest of humanity and the world. Experiences that lead to feelings of being more special or better than other people, or to self-absorption, are probably not authentic.
- Self Knowledge. Authentic experiences lead to a greater understanding of oneself. Signs of repression, denial, or shutting out of self-awareness indicate a lack of authenticity.
- Humility. Authentic experiences lead to a particular kind of humility, one that painfully recognizes more of one’s human inadequacy, yet at the same time increasingly realizes one’s won preciousness and worth as a child of God. It is a humility that is combined with dignity. This is in contrast to experiences that lead either to arrogance or devaluing of oneself.
- Openness to Differences. By deepening trust in the power and goodness of God, authentic experiences lead to less defensiveness about one’s own faith and increased respect for and openness to dialogue with people of differing faiths [or perspectives]. Authentic experiences may lead to a desire to share the truth, but they do not result in defensive or aggressive clinging to one’s own understanding.
- Open-endedness. Authentic spiritual experiences contain a quality of further invitation: deepened yearning, inspired energy, continued growth and healing. In contrast, experiences that communicate a sense of “having arrived” are cause for suspicion.
- Ordinariness. Although authentic experiences may initially be accompanied by celebration and enthusiasm or by fear and trepidation, their integration brings a quality of wondrous appreciation of the ordinary; life is holy, and the miraculous presence of God’s grace flows through all of it. Experiences that lead to a strong separation of the holy from the mundane must be questioned.
Gerald May closes with this thought: “If there is one basic factor that distinguishes authentic from inauthentic experience, it can be found in a paraphrase of John of the Cross: In the end, all of us—and all of our experiences—must be judged on the basis of one thing, and that is love.” (Gerald May’s guidelines quoted in Holy Meeting Ground: 20 Years of Shalem)
Sometimes we long for such a deep, powerful experience as Moses had with the bush in the desert. We wonder why God hasn’t met us in such a powerful way. Yet perhaps such an experience is nearer to us than we think.
John Philip Newell is a poet, scholar, and teacher of the Celtic tradition from Scotland. He recently visited the DC region for the two day Gerald May Seminar held by the Shalem Institute, an annual event which seeks to carry on the legacy of May’s life and teaching. He spoke on the connection between earth awareness and contemplative practice, noting that there is a profound and deep connection between matter and spirit that perhaps we’ve forgotten. He puts it this way, in his recent book A New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and The Human Soul:
In the story of Moses and the burning bush, in which the Living Presence is revealed in the words “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be,” Moses is told to take off his shoes, for the ground on which he is standing is holy. He is told to uncover the soles of his feet, a place of deep knowing in the human form. Think of walking barefoot in the grass. Think of placing our bare feet into the coolness of a refreshing stream. When we do so, we see in a new way. Doors of perception are opened in us. Rabbi Nahum, in teaching on this passage from Torah, likes to say that the important aspect of this story is not that the bush is burning, but that Moses notices. For every bush is burning. Every bush is aflame with the Living Presence. The “fiery power,” as Hildegard puts it, is hidden in everything that has being.
An encounter with the divine may be nearer than you think. The title of Newell’s chapter from which I quoted? Every Bush is Burning. The question is: have you paused to notice? Have you made space in your busy life? Maybe it’s time to go for a walk. And don’t forget: leave the shoes at home.